The moon is a “stepping stone” for humanity’s permanent presence in deep space, and NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will be the lynchpin of this effort, say space-exploration experts who spoke during a public forum at Purdue in April 2019.
The panel discussion included William Gerstenmaier*, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. Purdue President Mitch Daniels moderated the discussion, which was part of the Ideas Festival, the centerpiece of the University’s Giant Leaps Sesquicentennial Campaign.
The Gateway concept is designed to provide an orbiting lunar outpost from which astronauts could descend to the lunar surface. The plan is for Gateway to harness high-power solar electric propulsion, or SEP, instead of using conventional rocket thrusters. This innovative propulsion system would allow Gateway to not only maintain its position in lunar orbit but also to move it into different orbits for specific tasks.
The idea is gaining traction against a political backdrop that saw Vice President Mike Pence visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he challenged the space community to return to the moon by 2024.
“We’re going to get really busy here really fast,” Gerstenmaier said. “And the good thing is, we’ve been planning for this all along.”
In addition to Gateway-related work, various spacecraft are being developed and tested by NASA and the private sector.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been at this level of development in manufacturing for our human spaceflight programs,” said Gerstenmaier, a Purdue alum who earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1977 and completed coursework for a doctorate in dynamics and control, with a minor in propulsion in 1993. Gerstenmaier also received an honorary doctorate during commencement in May 2019.
He envisions a return to the moon in three steps. Using the Gateway and “prepositioning some lunar landing hardware there, we should be able to land on the moon in ’24,” he said.
*Gerstenmaier held his position as associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations from 2005 until July 10, 2019, when he was reassigned to the role of special advisor to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.